Puppetry Grows Up

Artist Draws Adult Audiences Through Unconventional Theater
by Natalie Koltun ’16 | Dumpster Monster Photo courtesy of Jeff Fitzgerald / The Writer’s Bloc, University of Maryland

Towering 10 feet high and covered in empty takeout food containers, plastic shopping bags and crumpled paper stood the “Dumpster Monster.” It emerged from a wooden container, its outstretched arms and fangs protruding menacingly amidst a cloud of flies and cockroaches, as terrified janitors poked it with brooms.

But this beast posed no real threat. Rather, it was a work of art spawned by puppeteer Robin Frohardt to convey a message about our culture of waste.

“People throw so much stuff away every day,” says Frohardt. “We’re basically creating our own monster with all this garbage.”

During the Fall 2015 semester, she was an artist-in-residence with the School of Theatre, Dance, and Performance Studies (TDPS), showing students that puppetry is a valuable tool for artistic expression on social issues—not just a medium for children.

Through funding from Heather Henson (daughter of Jim Henson ’60) and the Jane Henson Foundation (named for the 1955 graduate), Frohardt is sharing her artwork as well as working with advanced theater students on the fundamentals of puppetry, from the craft’s history to techniques for building and bringing puppets to life onstage.

“It’s really cool because we get to learn from someone who’s actually at the forefront and doing this for a living,” says Chelsey McLaughlin ’17.

Dumpster Monster, looming over onlookers at September’s NextNOW Festival, the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center’s second annual showcase of innovative artists, was just one in Frohardt’s collection of works. Her first full-length puppet play, “The Pigeoning,” is a darkly comedic piece centered on mental illness and the end of the world. The play premiered in 2013 and was “exquisitely rendered,” according to The New York Times.

Frohardt’s next project, set to debut in 2017, is a puppetry-based satire that audiences will experience in a real New York City storefront. From the outside, the Plastic Bag Store looks like any discount shop, but upon further investigation, patrons will get lost in a maze of aisles that morph into a complex miniature city of waste.

Professor Leigh Wilson Smiley, TDPS director, says Frohardt’s work seduces the audience into contemplating societal problems through humor without making it threatening or scary.

“She’s helping students stimulate their imaginations by breathing life into inanimate objects,” Smiley says. “In our everyday life we’ve lost our childlike imaginations, and what her puppets bring back is that magic.”


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